Restaurant Review: Barley Swine 2.0
Innovative fare mixed with some sour notes
Reviewed by Melody Fury, Fri., March 18, 2016
Sun.-Thu., 5-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-11pm
Bryce Gilmore, Austin's culinary darling, has been unpretentiously dishing out haute, locavore cuisine since his humble days in the Odd Duck Farm to Trailer food truck. Six years later, a shiny and new Barley Swine location is decked out with a prominent 8-seat chef's table facing an impressive wood grill, a comfy 80-seat dining area, a full bar, and a laid-back patio. The design pays homage to the original location, featuring repurposed wood and jars of colorful preserves. It carries the familiar vibe that balances hip, energetic, easygoing, and organized.
Like other hot-ticket eateries like qui, Counter 3. Five. VII, and the new Otoko, Barley Swine uses a reservation system that requires a credit card (although it does not use a ticketing system like Paul Qui's restaurants). Guests that no-show are charged a fee. Psychologically, this ticketing system intensified my anticipation for their 11-course chef's tasting menu ($85, with a palate cleanser and take-home chocolates). But with increased excitement also comes heightened expectation toward this household name.
Every chef carries her or his signature flavor profile in their back pocket. From what I recall from previous visits to his restaurants, Gilmore's dishes are pronounced with umami, smokiness, and acidity. As flavor trends go, Barley Swine was ahead of its time, showcasing acidic ingredients like whey, shrubs, and pickles. Half a decade later, I wondered if it would still deliver the intrigue it used to.
The beverage pairing (additional $55) kicks off with the O. Henry cocktail, a polished play on the Bee's Knees, with the addition of Meyer lemon and manzanilla. The cocktail's nutty notes complemented the deeply caramelized sunchokes in the first dish. The earthy tuber was brightened with thyme and charred leeks, and served on a creamy spiced egg sauce that made me lick the bowl clean.
The next dish, pig skin cut into springy noodles then tossed in a tangy hot sauce with crushed almonds, exudes Southeast Asian cuisine's boldness. Boundary Breaks dry Riesling had enough body to hold up to the heat. The liquefied shiitake mushroom-filled ravioli on buttery scrambled eggs that followed wrapped me up in a blissful blanket.
However, after the three clear winners, the next dishes began to be repetitive. It seemed like the kitchen figured out a formula that was sure to please (i.e., caramelization, acid, crunchy nuts) so they replicated it throughout. The hay-roasted carrots' sweetness was overshadowed by the mixture of seeds and the (tart in nature) chèvre. The nicely poached red snapper rested on a pool of koji butter that also had a hint of acid, alongside roasted brussels sprouts, Marcona almonds, and cured radish. Sure, both dishes were cohesive on their own, but they lacked diversity in the grand scheme.
The superbly refreshing calamondin citrus sorbet with juniper oil and fizzy kombucha was a welcomed palate cleanser, only to be followed by the rather tart steel-tank-fermented Partida Creus and a sour beer from local Blue Owl Brewing. Frankly, my palate was exhausted by the omnipresent acidity. Thankfully, the next few plates offered some relief. I slathered the whipped bone marrow generously over the flaky parsley "croissants" that resembled cubed puff pastry. The tender, wood-charred octopus upstaged the overly soft pork foot and cabbage fried rice.
Moving on to the meat dishes, the succulent fried chicken drumstick with shatteringly crisp skin was dressed in a sweet caramel with smoked mackerel bones. It was served with a side of pickles, of course. The pork loin arrived with a beautiful pink center, but the exterior was unfortunately over-grilled. Its weepy juices stained the plate.
By dessert, I could only manage a bite of the cider vinegar pie. The next sweet plate, a subtle sunchoke custard, was lovely on its own. Unfortunately, it was too delicate to stand up to the sharp Meyer lemon ice cream. (Didn't I have another citrus sorbet earlier?) A scatter of sunflower seeds seemed out of place.
When I returned for happy hour the following week, palate refreshed, I had a much more pleasant experience. Their "swine time" specials are a great value, with select cocktails at $6, wines at $7, and drafts at $4. The Obligatory Tiki #1, served from a nitro tap, showcased the round molasses notes from rum, highlighted by piña gnomme and pecan orgeat. The sparkling Bourbon Trail is straightforward, livened with the addition of mole bitters.
One can easily build a meal out of the marked-down menu items, starting with the perfectly grilled oyster mushrooms over a bed of candied beets and sprinkled with toasted cheese and pecan crumble. It's a steal at only $5. Follow that up with a substantial portion of corn dog-battered snapper collar with a drizzle of hot sauce and pickles ($6). Conclude with a plump strawberry jelly doughnut that's dusted with a lip-smacking chicken fat powdered sugar ($4).
Of the rest of the à la carte dishes that weren't also on the tasting menu, the coffee-marinated egg with a gooey yolk that rests on a nest of crunchy sweet potato noodles was the most unforeseen success ($11). The crab tamale ($16), on the other hand, was too saucy, the crab a bit stringy, and simply fell flat despite the garnish of pickles (again).
The sizable portion of Wagyu rib steak ($25) was tasty, sure. It was served on beef-fat-fried beans and mashed kohlrabi, which added little texturally. The steak appeared to be cooked sous-vide, which yielded a fork-tender steak. However, that cooking method doesn't allow the fat to release in order to catch the much-needed flavor from the flame. With a cut that exquisite, I wished they graced it on the grill the old-fashioned way, but that's a matter of personal preference.
At the end of the day, I would head back to Barley Swine in a heartbeat, even if I would think twice about splurging on the tasting menu again. Still, I appreciate their willingness to experiment and play with their food. I simply hope that they will collect more tricks for their kit as they continue to mature in this increasingly competitive food scene.
Barley Swine6555 Burnet Rd., 512/394-8150
Sun.-Thu., 5-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-11pm